Malmaison & Empress Josephine | State Library of New South Wales

Malmaison & Empress Josephine

Josephine Bonaparte (1763-1814), wife of Napoleon, was an amateur botanist and natural historian. In 1799, she and Napoleon acquired a run-down chateau called Malmaison, outside Paris. Josephine spent thousands of francs developing the property, in particular the grounds. Her passion for rare, beautiful and exotic plants led to the creation of extensive greenhouses, unparalleled rose gardens, and nurseries.

Australia had recently been settled by the British, and French interest in the Pacific regions was also strong. Josephine was able to acquire plants and seeds from French scientific expeditions, such as that mounted by Baudin in 1800. During the Napoleonic Wars, in the early 19th century, Josephine received botanical specimens from captured British ships as well. She also maintained contacts with nurseries in France and England who supplied her with the latest exotic specimens cultivated from abroad. As well as decorative floral specimens, such as the kangaroo paw, Malmaison also boasted large Australian eucalypts and animals such as kangaroos, black swans and sulphur-crested cockatoos. Napoleon himself was said to be fascinated by the platypus.

Josephine's passion for Australian exotics is now overshadowed by her lasting fame for her roses. Many current ornamental rose varieties were developed at Malmaison. She employed renowned floral artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute to document the plants in her garden, including the Australian species, and commissioned two of his most famous works – Les Roses and Les Liliacees.

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